Congress has a responsibility to hone DHS’s ambiguous mandate to monitor social media and networking while at the same time keeping the homeland safe and protecting Americans’ constitutional rights. That is why we launched an examination of the program at a hearing of the Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, which I chair, held last week.

We heard testimony from DHS that outlined the Department’s mission to use social media and networking for communication with the public in instances of terror attacks or natural disasters for response and recovery efforts. This is a no-brainer, and I fully support this tactic. However, there are legitimate concerns about the effect monitoring web activity could have on our constitutionally protected right to criticize our government.
What remains unclear after the hearing is who within the government is directing the gathering of this intelligence from social media? To what extent is DHS requesting media monitoring reports targeting individuals’ reactions to controversial government policies or political decisions?  I am equally concerned that without proper congressional oversight of this initiative, DHS analysts could be spending limitless time floating on a sea of information data without any kind of intelligence-driven aim.
As with all new technologies, they come with new opportunities and challenges. While DHS exercises its relatively new duties to protect the public, we must ensure that time-honored safeguards enshrined in our constitution and cherished by our citizens remain a priority for officials in both the legislative and executive branches.

Meehan is chairman of the Homeland Security subcommitee on counterterrorism and intelligence.